Life is a game, play accordingly


You probably have no idea (or recollection of) how sophisticated you were as a child.

Ken Robinson once said:

What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. […] And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.

And we run our companies like this.

We stigmatize mistakes.

And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

I want to talk about the game of tag. A simple game and a complex adaptive system because humans are involved.

If you don’t know, here’s the simple part:

  1. Two or more players play the game.
  2. One player is chosen to be “it” first.
  3. The “it” player has a single goal (a WIP limit) to touch another player.
  4. When the “it” player touches another player, that player becomes the (single) “it” player.
  5. All the other players try to avoid becoming the “it” player.

This game is now a professional sport.

Now let’s talk about the complex and creative parts.

Some teams decide that “the floor is lava,” and you become it if you fall onto the ground. Some teams decide there is a safe spot for players to take a break from the game. Some teams will make the rule that you can’t immediately tag the person who tagged you (no “touchbacks”).

There are infinite possibilities; the point is that the players decide these rules, not an external rule book. Further, the rules are in place to make the game more inclusive and enjoyable for the players involved (not someone who might join later).



I used to be really slow and overweight as a kid. I couldn’t chase anyone down and couldn’t cross the monkey bars—playing tag sucked for me.

If I became it, everyone would scatter and cross the monkey bars. I became very good and touchbacks.

Watching two people repeatedly tagging each other isn’t fun for the other players who want to play the game. Someone recommended the no-touchback rule. (We already had the ground as lava and would make you “it” in place.)

I protested because I couldn’t cross the monkey bars, which wasn’t fun for me. (Admittedly, the protest at the time was made more in the spirit of “I’ll take my ball and go home.”) My teammates wanted me to play the game.

We actually talked about a few options before coming to an agreed-upon solution.

One possibility was, “If Josh is ‘it,’ everyone must stay on the main playground.”

I said (something like), “That doesn’t seem fair. Y’all shouldn’t have to handicap yourselves because I can’t cross the monkey bars.”

We modified the lava rule that you had to be on the ground for three seconds or longer before becoming “it.” That meant if I were “it,” and I could run the length of the monkey bars in three seconds or less, I wouldn’t become it from touching the ground. (We didn’t think about how the incremental exercise would improve my abilities, or how we would know it was three seconds, or anything else—simply sophisticated.)

We also decided that you couldn’t become it if someone on the ground tagged you while you were on the monkey bars.

We kept iterating like this for a while and creating and modifying the rules daily.

When our pod went to recess, no one bothered much trying to be on that set of playground equipment. If they did decide, typically, it was to join the game. They learned the rules as we played, and none of the “veterans” questioned why they didn’t already know how to play tag—especially play it our way. Sometimes “veterans” would go do something else for a day or two, but they were always welcomed back, and they didn’t balk if the rules had changed in their absence (an infinite game, but none of us knew what that was).

We added that I had to at least try and cross the monkey bars.

We added that the same person could not be it two times in a row (a modification to the safe spot concept and extension of the no touchback); we did this because one of our teammates (friends) had something akin to asthma (inclusion). In addition, this allowed the chaser to take a breath without the chasee immediately chasing them.

As an adult, it fascinates me how much pushback I receive in corporate settings when it comes to making (and capturing) the guidelines and guardrails for group activities:

Does it really need to be that formal?

As a child, no one taught us how to negotiate or make fair rules or the concepts of game theory, justice, and empathy. More importantly, we didn’t think we were being formal or sophisticated. And, finally, we didn’t need to get “leadership buy-in”; no one asked the teacher how to play tag or if a given rule was equitable or not—we just knew and trusted none of us was intentionally trying to game the system.

Let’s shift to continuous improvement. Specifically, continuous improvement by doing the same thing repeatedly; improvement and a “different activity” aren’t synonyms.

Eventually, I got to the point where I could cross the monkey bars. I could also skip bars. I could jump to a distant bar instead of starting from the beginning.

(My teammates were shocked the first time I made it. We forgot the game long enough to celebrate my accomplishment. We also set aside the three second rule because the original rationale was no longer valid. And, we could bring it back if someone else couldn’t cross the bars. Sophisticated.)

Another friend of mine could skip two or three bars at a time. Eventually, they got to a point where they would jump to a distant bar, skip three bars at a time, and be across in three moves (smooth is fast).

Now, let’s consider innovation and creativity.

Our playground had a set of monkey bars; if that wasn’t apparent. What I didn’t say is it had four rows of monkey bars.

The first row was rings, the second and third were full-width bars, and the fourth were staggered bars. Logs were running the length separating each row.

For the most part, we stuck to the four rows while playing tag despite having a whole multi-tier platform stage attached. One day a teammate’s arms were too tired to cross. They jumped out two or three bars, swung their feet up, stood on the bars, and ran across. We had no rule against it. But, as was our norm, whenever we did something different that none of us had thought about trying or seen before, we were about to talk about it. Before we could, the teacher tasked with the kids’ safety came over and said, “Impressive as that was. You can’t do that.”

As an adult, I was introduced to things like speed limits, safety belts, and the bane of Sarbanes-Oxley.

Eventually, the game got a bit boring. We started waiting for the “it” person to start crossing. When they were halfway across, we chose a different row of bars, and crossed. Some of us got good at turning around, but it was still mundane.

One day, I tagged someone on the multi-tier platform side, jumped a couple of bars out, and skipped one bar at a time to get to the narrow platform on the other end.

I was waiting. My teammate started crossing on the second row of bars. I went to the fourth row of bars and started crossing.

Midswing, my friend grabbed the log, not the bar. He proceeded to use the logs to cross laterally to me.

Dumbstruck, I stopped crossing and just watched. I just hung there. He tagged me, and I dropped to the ground. I was like, “Woh! What was that? That was awesome! How’d you do it?”

We all came together and talked about it. He showed us exactly how he had done it. We spent some time trying to do it ourselves.

We decided it was fair game. No rule against it was in place before I got tagged. And no rule against it was made afterward.

We had established a re-entry ritual to occur after moments like these. I went to the narrow platform (because I was “it”), and everyone else went to the multi-tier platform.

Game on!

There were so many other things we did that went beyond the basics. Each decision was to increase joy and inclusivity and sometimes decrease the rare possibility of going against the spirit of a rule without breaking the letter of the rule.

(We spent a fair amount of time after recess talking about how the game went and how it could be better—a retrospective—and the activity was so fun, we wanted to talk about it more—employee engagement. But not fake or the definition of “try hard.”)

As an adult, I’m blown away by how much complexity we create to appear sophisticated (or busy or do things the “right” way) while neglecting the basics of increasing joy and inclusivity.

In tag, the responsibility of being “it” rotates, and no one gets upset—it’s part of the game.

Meanwhile, in business, we tend to view delegation as dumping, “I don’t want or like to do this thing, so you do it, always and forever.” Of course, we tend to sugarcoat it by saying things like, “You’re better at this than me. You should do it,” or “You’ll have this prestigious title but not a raise,” or “leadership” associates the new (painful) responsibility with a role.

I didn’t like crossing the bars. But my teammates wouldn’t let me not even try; they managed me and established expectations.

Meanwhile, in business, we tend to “nice each other to death.” I can’t call out my teammate or tell them what to do, “That’s not my role. We need a manager to do it.” In other words, “I think there needs to be a stick, but I don’t want to be the bearer (delegation as dumping—only this time, it’s delegating ‘up’).”

Embrace your inner child. Not as fiction but as the reality that once was. Remember that you might be like I was initially trying to cross the monkey bars, though. Both when I was young and a few years later (post-puberty)

I was visiting my mom. I went back to my old school and playground. I stood on the narrow platform. I jumped to the third bar. I caught it. I had never been able to do that when I was at the school.

I didn’t realize I was much taller, and I simultaneously hit the crown of my head on the second bar. I fell to the deck. (My hands had even instantly become blistered and torn because the daily cultivation of callouses had gone away.)

It took a little while before I tried out playground equipment again.

I was going to title this “Agile is natural,” but decided it was too on the nose, so I relegated it to the closing paragraph.

Game on!